Are you sure it’s not the sleep that’s killing your progress?
I find that helping people implement sustainable food habits is relatively easy with even just the tiniest bit of education, and of course consistent meal prep, tracking, and accountability. People are just more compliant with the food part of their nutritional landscape because they believe that unhealthy food choices are THE problem with their weight. But unhealthy sleep habits can be an even bigger factor for many patients. And yet only 21% of the US are getting the recommended amount of sleep (1), and I get the lowest compliance of all the health ingredients with sleep (and also stress management habits).
Aside from the infinite number of other health implications, getting the proper amount of sleep as well as synchronization of the biological clock are vital for achieving proper energy balance and for the secretion of hormones that contribute to weight regulation. (2) In fact, research shows that sleep deprived people are more likely to eat larger portions, crave more energy-dense fat & carbohydrate-rich foods, and snack more late at night. And one study in particular shows a 55% reduction in fat loss from just 14 days of insufficient sleep (3). This is partly because sleep deprivation has a negative impact on ghrelin and leptin, which are two hormones involved in regulating fat storage and food quantity consumption. Glucose effectiveness, acute insulin response, and insulin sensitivity which are all involved in weight management are also reduced by 30% during sleep restriction (4,5). Additionally, when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain doesn’t function properly, and this includes impulse control. So, you’ll have worsened cravings because your brain will be actively seeking out things that’ll make it feel good (like sugar, fat, and caffeine), and you’ll also be more likely to cave to those cravings. It’s a bad combo.
So, here’s a few tips:
1. A consistent wake-up time is equally important to a consistent bedtime (7).
The word “rhythm” in circadian rhythm is key. When we wake up and go to sleep at different times during the week or on the weekends, it confuses our body (6). So, set your alarm for the same time every day (even weekends) regardless of if you’ve had 4 or 8 hours of sleep the night before. It will be a rough next day (or few days), but you’ll be more likely to be ready for sleep the following night, and it doesn’t take long to reset your master clock if you don’t cave to the urge to drink that coffee the next afternoon. Give this change at least a week work its magic; it will help your body acquire a regular rhythm, and soon you will begin to get sleepy at the same time each night, you’ll sleep more soundly, you will wake more energized, you’ll need less caffeine, and the cycle will continue until your rhythms will come back into balance. You just really have to power through those first few days without that afternoon cup of Joe.
2. Only use your bed for sleeping or sex
TV, cell phones, and tablets are the worst culprits, but many sleep experts also say no reading or any activity whatsoever in the bedroom besides sleep and sex. Personally, I have found that reading actually helps many people fall asleep because it can help with insomnia anxiety and because the physical effort on the eyes can tend to make them feel heavy. If you do read, use a dim bed lamp (see item #9).
The goal here is to establish your bed and bedroom as a strong cue for sleep (similar to how smelling baking cookies can make you hungry even if you were not hungry before). If you do other things there, it’s less likely to work. (7)
3. Face the clock away from you
Staring at the time will only make you more anxious about precious minutes ticking away.
4. Don’t toss and turn
If you haven’t fallen asleep in 20 minutes, get us and do some light stretching or try reading on the couch.
5. Avoid naps
Try to avoid them entirely during this circadian rhythm resetting process, but definitely don’t let them be longer than 20 minutes.
6. Don’t go to bed starving or stuffed
Hunger can disrupt sleep, but so can a really heavy meal an hour or so before bed. If you’ve gotten your macros sorted out, you should be able to eat to a comfortable level and still not be starving 3 hours later.
7. Don’t do strenuous exercise for 3 hours before bed (unless you are one of the few whom that actually helps.)
Exercise is absolutely correlated with improved sleep, as is a healthy diet rich in fiber. But neither are recommended within a few hours of when your body is trying to shut down as they can be “activating” (7)
8. Avoid alcohol and nicotine in the evening hours
9. Implement a calming bedtime ritual (read more in #10)
10. Stay off screens for at least an hour before bed
I find that clients usually need to hit a plateau before they’re willing to work with me on this, so I want to give you some powerful data and a few strategies/hacks to inspire you to give it a shot for a week.
Here’s why it’s important. The sleep-wake cycle is largely driven by the circadian process which respond primarily to light and dark (8) After the sun goes down, the body’s master clock (20,000 nerve cells in the hypothalamus) tells the brain to make more melatonin, so you get drowsy and fall asleep. When the environment is too light (including light from all electronic devices), it significantly interferes with this process by decreasing melatonin secretion (9), which can cause not only difficulties sleeping, but can also disrupt the entire circadian rhythm.
Dimming lights, staying off screens for at least an hour (preferable 2) before bed and waking up at the same time each morning even if you didn’t sleep well are some of the best things you can do to help reset your circadian clock. But screens are a necessary evil for most of us, so I understand the resistance. The best strategies I have found to get there are:
1. Do it slowly but systematically and keep track of how you’re doing. Yes, on paper.
2. “Crowd out” the nighttime usage out with other more useful activities like meditation, yoga, board games, or a walk.
3. Intentionally schedule any necessary screen time into an earlier time slot.
4. Don’t give up, just give yourself grace — As with any other habit change, it takes accountability, consistency, persistence, and a lot of grace when you “slip”. These habits are hard to break in our “do more” culture.
First, try incrementally moving back your “no screen” time by 5–10-minute increments every week or so. One little hack to get you halfway there is to design a sacred 30-minute relaxing bedtime routine. This can include a bath, meditation, leisurely facial care regimen, reading a book in bed, or some gentle yoga. This will also serve to nourish another vital ingredient: self-care.
But this means that you’ll have to back all evening activities up by 30 minutes, and you’ll need to plan accordingly. If it’s new, and it’s not planned (perhaps even with an alarm in your calendar), It’s not likely to stick.
Another common pitfall I see is when clients are so used to using that time to catch up on emails and social media comments that come in post workday. So, if you’re used to using this last 30 minutes of the day for these purposes, make sure you plan an earlier evening time slot for them, or it will feel like an impossible task, and it won’t be sustainable because you’ll always feel behind in those tasks.
If you feel like you’re eating really well, think about tracking your sleep and implementing some sleep hygiene strategies. Reach out if you need help.